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Lose Your Mother
A Journey Along the Atlantic Slave Route
By Saidiya Hartman
Farrar, Straus and GirouxCopyright © 2007 Saidiya Hartman
All rights reserved.
"NO MATTER HOW BIG a stranger's eyes, they cannot see." I don't think Stella, the housekeeper at the Marcus Garvey Guest House, was the person I first heard use these words to describe the proverbial blindness of Westerners, but she might as well have been. I credit her with my initiation. The judgment stung as much the first month as it did ten months later. It was as if these words were always floating about in my head, just waiting for the right occasion. Now it's impossible for me to recall that first evening without them.
The Marcus Garvey Guest House was in precipitous decline. When Stella opened the door to the room that would be mine, I hoped my disappointment wasn't too obvious. I didn't want to appear the spoiled American. Looking at the dingy yellowed walls and the brown water stains that seeped across the ceiling and the green carpet stiff with dirt, I felt the first pang of homesickness and realized that a week at the guesthouse was going to be a long time. The room was sweltering and the air was thick with mildew. A colleague at the National Museum had chosen the guesthouse because it was a bargain for Accra. It was only forty dollars a night, one-third the price of the average two-star hotel. So I would have to stick it out until my too expensive flat in Osu, a trendy commercial district of Accra with a sprawl of stores, restaurants, bars, Internet cafés, and discotheques, was ready at the end of the week.
Stella turned on the overhead fan, which churned the stale air but brought no comfort, retrieved a small stack of threadbare towels from the corner bureau and placed them on the bed, pointed out the bathroom down the hall, and then excused herself for the night. The room made me uneasy, so I turned up all the lights and delayed getting into bed. I was writing in my journal about the squalor of the guesthouse and Marcus Garvey's faith in Africa's redemption and wondering if I shared his optimism when I dozed off in the overstuffed chair.
"Turn off the lights! Turn off the lights!" Stella screamed as she burst into my room and the door slammed into the wall. She was naked except for a towel wrapped around her, which barely covered her breasts and privates. The terror on her face made me obey. I jumped out of the chair, turned off the lamps on the nightstands, and ran to the corner to shut off the overhead light. Before I had the chance to ask what was going on, she flew out of the room and pulled the door behind her. Then I heard the firecrackers or what I first thought were firecrackers. It was pitch-black outside. All the exterior lights of the guesthouse had been cut off. I peered from behind the heavy gold curtains and saw soldiers and jeeps and armored tanks moving along the streets of the capital. Oh, my God. A coup. My knees began to tremble and then urine rushed down my legs.
There had been a series of coups in Ghana. In 1966, Colonel Kotoka and Lieutenant General Afrifa had deposed Kwame Nkrumah; there were coups again in 1972, 1979, 1981, 1982, and 1983. Five military governments and three civilian governments had ruled the country since independence. Ghana's current president, Jerry Rawlings, had been a flight lieutenant in the Air Force when he seized the state through a military revolt on December 31, 1981; he had staged the last successful coup. (He had since been elected in 1992 and again in 1996.) In sub-Saharan Africa, more than seventy leaders of state had been overthrown by the armed forces. It was how the state changed hands. Soldiers decided who held the reins of power.
I fumbled around in the darkness until I found my money belt and passport, which I quickly strapped beneath my skirt, hoping that three hundred dollars and a few thousand more in American Express traveler's checks would be enough to buy my way out of trouble, thwart a rapist, and make my way to the airport. Maybe the soldiers would leave me alone because I was an American. God, please let me survive this night, I prayed, and I promise I will leave Ghana on the first available flight. I blockaded the door with a chair and put on running shoes so I would be able to flee if and when I needed to. As I listened to the tanks rolling through the streets, I began to cry. What was I doing here?
For more than an hour I listened to the sounds of vehicles rumbling along the road and the boots of soldiers striking the pavement and the volley of commands and the crack and pop of exploding shells. Where was Stella? I knew she lived with her children in a small building on the grounds of the DuBois Center complex, which included the guesthouse, but I didn't know exactly where. I should have followed her. I knew she was too frightened to come back for me.
I turned on the radio, but all I could find was static, except for a prerecorded program on the Voice of America Radio about Jackie Robinson breaking the color bar in baseball.
I had to use the bathroom, but I was too scared to venture down the hallway, so I peed (that is, I tried to) in an empty water bottle. Fear had stripped away the veneer of civility.
An hour before sunrise, the street quieted. I crawled over to the window and peered out from behind the drapes. The road was empty. All the soldiers were gone. I stretched out on the bed and waited for daylight.
Pots banging in the kitchen woke me up. I heard Stella's voice and ran out.
"Is it over? Is it safe to leave?"
"Yes, it's finished."
"Is Rawlings still the president?"
"Yes, Rawlings is the president."
"The coup failed?"
Stella looked at me blankly and then she laughed. "The house next door catch fire. I had to cut all the lights, so we wouldn't burn too."
"Did the soldiers set the house on fire?"
"There was no coup."
"But I saw the soldiers on the road."
"The army barracks are near here, just a little ways down Military Road. They practice their maneuvers at night."
She laughed again. And her nine-year-old daughter Abena snickered at the obruni talking foolishness to her mother.
When I moved out of the guesthouse at the end of the week, I doubted whether my way of seeing things had any footing in reality. Daily conversations with Stella painted a dire picture of Accra, which was quite different from the city I had come to know during a four-week visit the previous summer. The Accra I remembered was always saturated in the golden-rose color of sunset. When the taxi pulled away from the guesthouse I could not tell if the grim expression on Stella's face was intended to issue one last warning.
The apartment in Osu was less than a mile from Christiansborg Castle. Even with the fort in clear sight, it was hard to picture the slave routes and pathways hidden beneath the concrete pavements and the tar roads of the city and terminating at the shore. The seat of government was housed in what had been a Danish slave-trading post and then the headquarters of British colonial administration. Before the heels of parliamentarians clicked against the polished floors of the castle, captives restrained with neck rings and iron clamps were imprisoned inside the garrison until Danish, English, Portuguese, and French slave ships transported them to the Americas. Guns, brandy, cowries, and gold decided their fate, ensured their disappearance, and dictated that they be forgotten. Centuries later, this state of oblivion has yet to be remedied.
Aban is the Akan word for "castle." It is how Ghanaians refer to the government and how they perceive it: as a fortress and a foreign entity protected by great white walls. Even Kwame Nkrumah, the great anti-imperialist, had chosen the castle as his presidential residence, appropriating the symbol of colonial authority as his own and, at the same time, distancing himself from its corruption by building a new edifice for the Parliament. "The old slave castle had become the proud seat of the new rulers," writes Ayi Kwei Armah, "the blind children of slavery themselves."
The specter of captives glistening with palm oil and stripped of everything except the neck collars and chains connecting one to the other or of ships' captains prying open the mouths of slaves to inspect their teeth, palming their genitals for signs of disease, and readying their flesh for the brand did not encumber the daily workings of the state. The brutality of the past had been exorcised with the demise of colonialism — at least this was the position espoused by the new statesmen. The monumentality of the castle gave heft to the assertion and grandeur to the fledgling post-colonial state. The old days had ended and the era of freedom had arrived. And after all, at this late date, what claim could slaves, factors, and merchants have on the seat of government? Why diminish the glory of nationhood with mention of an ugly past? Independence had done away with all of that. The uncanny feeling that the new days were too much like the old ones plagued only dissidents, intellectuals, and the poor.
In Accra, the landscape of anticolonialism was everywhere indicated by roundabouts named after freedom fighters and slain martyrs and boulevards endowed with the totemic power of ideals like liberation, independence, and autonomy. The city propped up thwarted and grand schemes of an Africa for Africans at home and abroad. I had been living in Accra for a month before I realized that few ever called the streets by these grand names. They were hollow ideals to most people, who had never committed the names to memory and who plotted their course through the city with a map patterned out of contempt for the officialdom of the state, nostalgia for the bad old days of colonialism, and the desire to name the world in their own terms. I quickly learned when asking for directions that the street names inscribed on maps with unequivocal certainty were virtually useless. As far as I could tell, not one taxi driver in Accra could find his way to African Liberation Square, but almost all knew the location of the U.S. Information Service, the American and British embassies, and KLM. The drivers joked that the only change in forty years of independence was the name of the place. In getting around the city, few were mindful of the signs of slavery or independence.
In my daily trek from Osu to the University of Ghana in Legon, which was a twenty-to thirty-minute excursion by taxi, I began to map the city in my own terms. I identified the street on which I lived as Volta River Club Street, because the club was adjacent to the apartment building and no other street markers existed. My signposts were Not Independence Avenue and Obruni Road and Beggar's Corner and Shitty Lane. In a month I had become as indifferent to the elusive glory of the age of independence as everyone else in Accra. I passed through Thomas Sankara Circle every afternoon on the way home, oblivious to his dream of eradicating poverty, hunger, and illiteracy and unaware of the ten million trees he intended to plant in the sahel to contain the spread of the desert, mend the ravages of slavery and colonialism, and right the balance among humans, nature, and society. I was not bolstered by his words, which I had first read as a graduate student: "We must have the courage to invent the future. All that comes from man's imagination is realizable," or sobered by them: "We are backed up against the wall in our destitution like bald and mangy dogs whose lamentations and cries disturb the quiet peace of the manufacturers and merchants of misery." On the anniversary of Sankara's assassination, I didn't respect his memory with a moment of silence or think of the makeshift grave in which his body had been dumped or shed a tear because another path to Utopia had been blocked. These grand visions and beautiful promises were the ruins of another age and as remote and distant from my present as the dream of forty acres and a mule. So I hurried up Osu Road as blind to the future Sankara had envisioned as every other beleaguered pedestrian.
I met Mary Ellen Ray at Kwatson's, the neighborhood grocery store, which catered to the taste of homesick foreign nationals and charged exorbitant prices for the comforts of milk and cheese from Holland, Ceres juice, three kinds of nori, expensive tins of wasabi and smoked oysters, French bread, and Planter's cashews. We acknowledged one another with a tentative hello. There were enough African Americans in Accra to cultivate a polite indifference when we encountered one another. The reasons we were in Ghana could be summed up with a glance: the gerontocracy, those over-sixty-five men and women who had been invited to Ghana by President Nkrumah because of their skills as engineers, physicians, educators, and contractors were settled in upscale enclaves like Labone or Cantonments. They kept their distance from the steady wave of new arrivals and the ideologues. The less senior branch of the well-to-do were employed by international corporations and aid organizations; a few were entrepreneurs. They were rarely seen outside their gated compounds and air-conditioned SUVs. The visiting scholars, artists, and journalists lacked the comforts of air-conditioned vehicles and drivers and spacious, lovely homes and lived in the borderland between rich foreigners and middle-class Ghanaians, paying obruni prices for rent and everything else but not receiving the quality of goods and services that the powerful commanded and that Ghanaians exacted. The young ones bedecked in jeans, shorts, T-shirts, and cowrie shell necklaces were exchange students and Peace Corp volunteers. Sometimes we nodded in recognition when we passed one another; at other times, it was more convenient to avert your gaze and not call attention to the fact that you too were a stranger.
Mary Ellen was an attractive woman in her sixties with luminous, sad brown eyes, a mischievous smile, and the unmistakable comportment of a bohemian. There was no trace of the matron about her, and her unrestrained brunette dreadlocks, magenta tank top, and linen shorts flouted the sartorial regulations for female modesty; either she relished being a bad girl or she simply didn't gave a damn what people thought. All of which made me instantly admire her. She had been living in Ghana with her husband, John, for well over a decade. Mary Ellen was a technical writer and John a sculptor and photographer. We discovered we were neighbors. She lived near the Fulbright compound (virtually all of the tenants of the Kwatchie family were Fulbright scholars) and invited me over to dinner the following evening.
Mary Ellen and John lived only five blocks away from me, but finding their house was tricky. The concrete sidewalks and asphalt streets didn't extend beyond the main artery of Osu. Cars moved carefully on these roads, not out of concern for the goats, chickens, and pedestrians with whom they shared it but because of the large potholes. Only the poor walked, which was the majority of the city's million and a half dwellers. The neighborhood consisted of squat apartment buildings, modest middle-class homes, and one-room cinder-block dwellings populated by a dozen or more inhabitants who rotated hours in order to sleep. I asked a pair of teenage boys hanging out in front of a convenience store if they knew the American couple, and they escorted me to the Rays' front door.
John Ray was a slender, handsome man with dark, piercing eyes that made you falter and a mouth set in a fixed expression of disapproval. He was fiercely intelligent and self-educated, so he had little patience for most academics, whom he could think circles around and whom he found tedious. When I said hello, I saw he was trying to decide whether I was painfully dull or only moderately so. Interesting wasn't on the list of possibilities.
When I told John about my project on slavery, he asked, "Why Ghana? There are no archives here. There is nothing to discover that Wilks and Van Dantzig and McCaskie haven't already written about."
"I know where the archives are. I've been to the British Museum, the Public Records Office in Kew, the Bodleian Library at Oxford, and to the National Archives in Accra."
John smiled, pleased that I could bite if pushed. He was a cantankerous type who didn't hold back his opinions, even if they hurt your feelings. He didn't care.
"I'm interested in the popular memory of slavery. My plan is to retrace the slave route."
"Which one?" John asked.
I hadn't accepted Mary Ellen's dinner invitation to prove I wasn't a fool to an old man I had never seen before this evening, so I ignored John and sipped the lukewarm beer Mary Ellen had placed in front of me.
"There were nine major slave routes in Ghana," John replied, answering his own question. "Every step you take in Ghana crosses the trail of slaves. It's not hard to find a slave route. It's the freedom trail you should be looking for."
"Have you been to Elmina and Cape Coast yet?" Mary Ellen asked, trying to compensate for John's summary dismissal and to rescue the flagging conversation.
"Yes, on my first trip here in 1996," I said. "I plan to spend a few weeks there at the end of October. I can't believe how long it has taken me to get settled."
Excerpted from Lose Your Mother by Saidiya Hartman. Copyright © 2007 Saidiya Hartman. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
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